How the pandemic has changed digital healthcare forever, according to leaders

During the Stanford (Calif.) University symposium "The Pandemic Puzzle: Lessons from COVID-19," health leaders from both hospitals and the tech sector discussed the future of digital healthcare. 

"Throughout the pandemic, we've seen a continuous acceleration. About two years' worth of digital transformation occurred within literally two months," said panelist David Rhew, MD, CMO and vice president of healthcare at Microsoft. 

Stanford Health Care President and CEO David Entwistle told the panel that "before the pandemic, our number of visits annually was about 2 percent for telehealth. We quickly scaled to over 70 percent of all of our visits were telehealth."

The increase in telehealth helped allow physicians to see more patients, especially specialists who were often pressed for time. 

"If you look at an in-person visit for us, that's about 67 minutes. If you look at a telehealth visit, that's 22 minutes," Mr. Entwistle said. While the majority of patients are very satisfied with their virtual visits, the hospital is looking at ways to improve at-home diagnostic capacities for niche specialties like orthopedics that are still limited to in-person visits. 

The pandemic also highlighted the need for interoperability between systems. Understanding personal protective equipment supply levels across health systems, accessing data on vaccination and COVID-19 test results, and knowing bed availability across different regions all emphasized the criticality of having a unified communications platform. 

"We're starting to see how important interoperability is for both the healthcare system, public health, as well as the consumer," Dr. Rhew said. 

Julia Hoffman, head of mental health strategy at Teladoc, a virtual healthcare platform, brought up implementation science as a tool for innovation. 

"I would say, No. 1, smart organizations use science wherever they can and leave as little as possible to chance," she said. Having providers who are champions of new strategies and technologies, as well as streamlining trialability methods, can help systems innovate, she said. 

Looking to the future, the leaders discussed what they think will change about healthcare delivery 10 to 20 years down the line. Mr. Entwistle predicted a more seamless, personalized digital patient experience, from booking appointments to accessing medical records. He also said he hopes that some of the bureaucracy of delivering care will subside, especially in regard to cross-state treatment. Ms. Hoffman predicted more self-guided elements of healthcare will enter the industry, and Dr. Rhew said he can see a push for health equity, affordability and accessibility in underserved communities. 

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